THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Joanna Weiss

Helen Thomas’s gift to Israel

By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / June 13, 2010

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IN HER coarse, unfiltered, 89-year-old way, Helen Thomas may have done Zionism a favor.

That clearly wasn’t her intent outside the White House several weeks ago, when she looked into a flip cam and told Jews in Israel to go back to Germany and Poland. But her words, delivered with matter-of-fact coldness, embody an idea that some of Israel’s most fervent supporters have long warned about: the nation’s critics aren’t gunning for its policies so much as its existence.

Washington insiders have long known that Thomas was no fan of the Jewish state. But to the bulk of the public, Thomas was a harmless, prickly/cuddly, groundbreaking old lady, a sort of inverted Betty White, not a simmering font of anti-Israel sentiment.

Now the truth is out, and to people on the sidelines of the Israel debate — especially the young American Jews whose connection to Israel is tentative at best — her words could serve as a call to action. Maybe Israel truly needs some loud and sensible defending.

This has not been a broad sentiment among non-Orthodox American Jews under 40, says sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who studies American Jewry at Hebrew Union College. He chalks it up largely to upbringing: Though their boomer parents and grandparents were often raised in Jewish enclaves, surrounded by Jewish friends, these generations grew up in diverse communities. They were exposed to different cultures, with close friends and spouses outside the faith, Cohen says. They value multiculturalism and identify with Barack Obama’s post-racial rhetoric.

And they feel largely removed from their parents’ paranoia, that postwar, tribal feeling that Israel was a necessary refuge because there would always be people who hated the Jews.

It’s not hard to find anti-Semitism in America and the world today — real, overt anti-Semitism, as well as the oblique kind that Thomas seems to represent. Though Thomas was widely condemned by the mainstream, she has also drawn some loud defenders, including a Huffington Post blogger who suggested that Zionism was anti-Semitic.

But Thomas also fits a little too easily into the current contours of the Israel debate, which in itself has served to keep many young Jews from getting engaged. The dialogue has long felt like a “zero-sum game,’’ says Amy Spitalnick, spokeswoman for the pro-Israel lobby J Street: If you don’t support Israel unconditionally, you risk being labeled a hater or a naif.

J Street, which has steadily gained support in its two-year existence, advocates a different sort of debate, a space where it feels safe to proclaim support of Israel and still speak out against the Gaza blockade policies that led to last month’s ill-fated flotilla raid. (As J Street notes, there are many reasons to condemn the blockade, but one is purely practical: it has wound up strengthening Hamas instead of weakening it.)

That’s a powerful attraction for young liberal Jews, as Peter Beinart wrote in the New York Review of Books. Many feel disengaged from Israel, he wrote, because they have trouble squaring their liberal ideas with the current government’s hard-line actions. They want to support an Israel that represents their values — not just ethnic identity, but a commitment to democracy and human rights.

J Street argues that a two-state solution would meet those intellectual needs. “The existential threat to Israel right now is the lack of a [peace] agreement,’’ Spitalnick said. “Should we not achieve a two-state agreement in the near term, there won’t be a Jewish Democratic Israel to fight for.’’

But if young Jews are going to get engaged with Israel, they need emotional reasons, too. That’s where Helen Thomas could make her unwitting contribution. This month, she and some of her defenders gave voice to the ugly reasons why a Jewish state is needed. History still is what it is. Paranoia isn’t always irrational. But it has to be tempered with realism, too. Israel needs as many advocates as possible, encouraging a path that is both strong and wise.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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